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learning to detach

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tearsSpending day after day in an environment (hospice) marked by instability (people come here to die) leaves a residue in the heart. Intellectualizing about impermanence and chaos theory is one thing, but I viscerally noticing how I cling to the hope that things will remain constant is another.

Here’s what transpired. In quick succession, two coworkers said something I took as unjust criticism … and Pow%$#! Fight, flight, or freeze are said to be instinctive responses to threat; I wanted to quit right then. But I didn’t, leaning instead against a wall, right hand covering my heart space: waiting, not sure for what. This is today’s lesson, the voice said, pay attention. Soon thereafter, someone found me there and walked with me to a quiet room. Barely seated, with her hands touching my left shoulder lightly, I began to weep, then to sob, and to tell my story … including my “freeze” response to the recent death in my own family. 

Heard by whom?

After my friend left to visit patients, I stayed for a while, savouring the relief that only tears and unconditional acceptance can bring. Looking up, I noticed a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita on the shelf: 700 verses of Indian wisdom by Lord Sri Krishna from fifty centuries ago. Turning it over, I read Mohandas K. Gandhi’s comment: “When doubts haunt me, when disappointment stares me into the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to Bhagavad-Gita and find a verse to comfort me.” Thus instructed, I randomly opened the book and found this gem:

“Abandoning all attachment to the results of his activities, ever satisfied and independent, he performs no fruitive action, although engaged in all kinds of undertakings.” 

hands-with-gift1Bingo! There it is: my attachment to the amelioration of suffering. Every moment I spend at the bedside, so I believe, I can make a difference. Yet patients continue to suffer and to die … and their friends and relatives, despite my efforts and our temporary intimacy, continue to disappear.

A seeming paradox, yet an important distinction. It is right for me to give everything I have with the intention of easing another person’s suffering: that is the Bodhisattva vow*. It is equally right, nay imperative, that I learn to detach my/self from the outcome of such offerings, that I give without expecting a reward.

* One of the Four Great Vows in the Zen tradition is “to liberate all beings.”


3 responses »

  1. Wow, what a very powerful and touching post. Don’t we all end up in this same vulnerable spot at some point, somehow. I guess the thought in my mind is, “that is the strength of karma”, how we go, to these places of pain when intellectually as you say we know better. But that’s life messy chaotic and against reason sometime. But ripe with such offerings that we somehow need.

    I do admire you for the work you do at Hospice, I could never do this. And so it is true that people still are in pain and suffer but you offer something so special in your ability, your willingness to just be…. with them. In so many ways I think we can never know the impact (good or bad) that we have on another. And yet we do what we must do and then mop up after what comes to us. When I read your post I just feel you going deeper and deeper into where you need to go…. with such honesty and wisdom …. and today you hit a deep vein of pain and all kinds of things came rushing out. A cyber hug to you Peter.

  2. There’s a recording of a fine talk on “suffering” by Norman Fischer (former abbot of San Francisco Zen Center) at

    “All spiritual goodness, all healing, develops from suffering, which is why it is so precious.” ~N. Fischer

  3. Your ability to put the needs of another before your own with the intention to ease their suffering is the essence of compassion. Take strength in your ability to let the arrow fall where it may. Not to allow your self to be teathered to the (at times) unbearable weight of the outcome reminds me of a universal saying that I have associated with trauma medicine.

    “First, do the things at hand.”

    Walk away with the knowledge that you do your very best for each and every patient every time. Our best is enough.


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